A different kind of freedom fighter

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To my mind Brené Brown is a revolutionary and freedom fighter. Maybe not in the conventional sense of the word, but still very much a freedom fighter. She is a fighter in the cause of understanding and harnessing the power or weakness and vulnerability to live a full life. Our world desperately needs more of this kind of revolutionary and freedom fighter.

Who is Brené Brown? She is an American scholar, author, and public speaker. She is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. In this 20 minute TED talk she talks about her journey, both personally and professionally, in understanding the paradoxical power of weakness and vulnerability.

It is paradoxical, because so much within ourselves, in the media and the world around us emphasises being strong and confident, while at the same time hiding our weaknesses. Yet her talk has clearly struck a chord having had more than 27 million views.


Centuries before Brown it was Rousseau (1712 -1788) who said, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.”

Brown has spent more than ten years studying the human emotions of vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. For six years she focussed on issues to do with shame and empathy. She is now using that work to explore a concept that she calls wholeheartedness. In this talk she poses two very important questions:

1. How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness?

2. How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?

The desire for connection with others is a very strong driver for so much of what we do and seek to achieve. We are wired as social beings who desire to connect with others. Yet when Brown tried to study connection directly she found as humans we focus much more on the opposite, which is disconnection. As she says in the talk, “When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you ask people about belonging, they’ll tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection.”

That led her to spending a number of years in research to make sense of shame.

Shame she argues is best understood as the fear of disconnection.
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It breeds fear. It crushes our tolerance for vulnerability, thereby killing engagement, innovation, creativity, productivity, and trust.

Shame also has a role to play in feelings of depression and negative thinking. But perhaps even more importantly she concludes, shame is a universal experience. We all feel shame at one time or another. The less you acknowledge this feeling of shame within you then the less of  a capacity you will have for human empathy or connection. Also the less willing you are to talk about shame, then the more likely it is you strongly experience shame. We attempt to hide our shame by trying to show ourselves more capable or better in some way than other people. But as Rousseau would say we are actually in chains.

From her research Brown was able to show that those who have a strong sense of connection (or as she puts it who have a strong sense of love and belonging) believe they have a strong sense of love and belonging. Her word for these people is that they are whole-hearted.

There were two aspects that defined this whole-heartedness:

1. A strong sense of courage. The original definition of the word is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. In other words a whole-hearted person has the courage to be imperfect. They have the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others. It is not possible to be compassionate with other people if we are not able to be first compassionate with ourselves. That is what enables them to have connection with others.

2. They fully embraced vulnerability by believing vulnerability is what made their lives beautiful. By that she means such people see vulnerability as the only way to fully engage with life in all its messiness and complexity.

For Brown this has been a tough journey leading to what she called a breakdown and her therapist described as a spiritual awakening. Through that fight she come to an important conclusion:

“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love….For me, it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slug fest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.”

But we don’t like vulnerability. We will do all we can to avoid feeling vulnerable. We try to numb those feelings.

“You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”

As well as going to addictions, we also hide our vulnerability by trying to make everything that is uncertain certain. Examples include religion and politics where you see blame, harshness and judgemental attitudes. Blame then becomes a way to discharge pain and discomfort in a desire to look for perfection.

But when we embrace our vulnerability, we can say, “You’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging…..then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”

I appreciate there is a lot more that could be said, but how does this fight for vulnerability resonate with you? What questions and comments come to mind?

4 thoughts on “A different kind of freedom fighter”

  1. This is very helpful, but there is an area where I think she shows that her own understanding of vulnerability, deep as it is, meets with her deeply held prejudice against religion: “…religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty”. We are told in Hebrews 11:1 that “…faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” So, Brown is missing the fact that faith is and has always been certainty. If we cannot be certain of what we believe, it is not faith, but delusion or wishful thinking. This is an Alice in Wonderland kind of faith: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. If Brown had been honest in her research and set aside her prejudice, she might have noticed that all real faith is based on certainty, and what makes a difference is not ‘faith’ as a general concept, but whether that faith is based on truth or lies. Truth-based faith has a built-in capacity to produce what Brown calls ‘wholeheartedness’, to make us see our infinite worth, not out of our own perfection or imperfection but as conferred by the God who created us in his image and who took humanity in himself, becoming one of us. That is the only honest, legitimate way to accept our vulnerability and our worthiness, our “sufficiency”. I hope I am not being harsh, as I don’t know Brown or her work and she may in fact have shown elsewhere a better understanding of faith than is implied in this talk.

    1. Thank you for your observations Pablo. I think Brown is on a journey and through her vulnerability bringing us along that journey with her. I am intrigued to know where that journey will lead to for her.

  2. Really good – I wonder how we help one another to “embrace vulnerability” without being defined by it – and for example losing self esteem?
    Also those phrases eg “when you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak” … interesting how we will always focus on the imperfection rather than being grateful for what is right ie giving thanks for the bad things that have not happened.
    Your two blogs on vulnerability / shame / authenticity are a great resourcs Sunil

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